Metal Concerts are electrifying regardless of where you find them. The crowd unites in an ecstatic throng of energy and movement, guided by the steady hand of the band.

All people are brought together in the cacophonous celebration, breaking down the boundaries between them all, if only for an hour.

Japanese metal is no different, and it is the focus of this week’s post. So don your studded leather jackets and enter the mosh pit.

It’s time to find Metal in Japan.

How did Metal come to Japan?

Since the Meiji Restoration, Japan has modeled much of its society off of the West, and this ethos continues today. Japan takes trends and ideas from the West to make them their own, and Metal is no different.

In 1970, Black Sabbath released a new song, “Black Sabbath,” and this was the first piece of proto-Metal. And within that same year, a cover was released in Japan by the band Flower Travellin’ Band.

The following year, Flower Travellin’ Band released Satori, their first album, and the first example of Japanese Metal. While not particularly heavy or loud, the Japanese Metal scene had begun.

Satori album case (via Roots Vinyl Guide)
Satori album case (via Roots Vinyl Guide)

Metal from Samurai Steel

Over the next decade, the scene continued to grow quietly in the shadow of the American and European groups. Some of these Japanese bands, like Bow Wow and Nokemono, performed alongside these groups, opening up for acts such as Aerosmith, KISS, and Judas Priest (Words from My Face).

International Metal icons, from Slayer to Judas Priest to Black Sabbath, have all performed sold out tours here. They inspired many of the bands that went on to define Japanese Metal, something readily apparent to the keen observer.

However, the volume of the West’s Metal was too loud, and the Japanese bands were drowned out. At least until there was a loud enough reply from them.

How did the Japanese make Metal their own?

Loudness’ Loud Entrance

Loudness was the first Japanese metal band to shatter the cultural shell of Japan, breaking into the Western markets. Their success was so great they even appeared on MTV, toured America and Europe, and signed with a US record label in 1985 (Invisible Oranges).

With a heavy style similar to that of Def Leppard and Judas Priest, Loudness’ sound was right at home alongside the vogue sonics of the mid-80s.

The group even charted on the Billboard Top 200, remaining there for 23 weeks (Words from My Face), a substantial achievement for any Metal band, let alone a Japanese one. With Loudness’ success, it was clear that Japanese Metal had arrived.

Presence on the global stage brought with it an unprecedented form of influence, one which was utilized in a decidedly Japanese fashion: Visual Kei.

X Marks the Spot

X Japan was one of the most prominent groups to come out of Japanese 80s metal. They thrived well into the 90s, and still release albums to this day. Though their greatest contribution extends well outside Japanese Metal into may other mediums.

That contribution is Visual Kei.

Standard Visual Kei Aesthetic (via Above and Beyond)
Standard Visual Kei Aesthetic (via Above and Beyond)

Visual Kei can be a hard aesthetic to describe to the uninitiated, but I have found this one to be a fair summation: David Bowie’s androgyny + Glam Metal’s audacity + Japanese aesthetics and fashion.

By no means was X Japan the only band to pioneer this style. Other bands such as Versailles and Malice Mizer also joined in with their own takes on the style (Medium).

Yet none of them broke outside of music in the same way that X Japan did. X Japan re-wrote the game of Japanese fashion, introducing a hybrid style that was androgynous, glamorous, punk, and stylish all at the same time.

X Japan Broke the Mold

They put the aesthetics of the band above the music, and they did this so well that they changed Japanese fashion forever.

Visual kei aesthetics can still be seen throughout major cities such as Osaka and Tokyo (The Culture Trip), and the pronounced visuals are still a focal point of contemporary Japanese idol culture.

So I’ve looked at how Metal came to Japan and how the Japanese made it their own. But there is yet another question that begs to be asked:

Why is Metal so popular in Japan?

In a 2015 interview with Vortex Magazin, Marty Friedman, former guitarist for Megadeath, was asked to describe the difference between Japanese and Western musical traditions.

“Absolutely different! A thousand percent different—as different as you could possibly be. It’s like another planet. Luckily, I could adapt to it and keep my American self together too, so I wound up having a very strange musical identity.”

Marty Friedman, Vortex Magazine

Friedman moved to Japan to pursue music in the early 2000s, as he felt burnt out on the American Metal scene. He found much success in the East, and he has been here for over a decade. Only in recent years has he begun performing in America again.

If music in Japan is so different, then there has to be some universal aspect that makes Metal as successful as it is here. I have seen some theories that it functions as a respite from the formalities of everyday life, and still other that the appreciation grows from a cultural desire for perfection of technique.

Each of these theories seem plausible to me, though I don’t find them to be most reflective of the reality. For my money, the reason Metal has been so successful in Japan is simple:

The music speaks to the people.

It’s a cliché answer, but I think it is the most correct one.

This unity transcends nationality and language, and it can drive people to overcome those boundaries themselves. Finnish Metal, for example, has motivated many fans to learn the language so they may appreciate the music even more (The Culture Trip).

I’ve heard it said many times that music is a “universal language.” No matter your nationality or culture, the right song can speak to you, regardless of a language barrier.

It was with this in mind that I attended Download Metal Festival 2019 in Tokyo. As I discussed in a previous post, this was a festival I was eagerly awaiting.

Among the lineup of performances was Ghost, my favorite band, and I desperately wanted to see them live. As one of the later acts, there were many performances to go, and I attended each of them, whetting my appetite for the later shows.

There was a sense of cosmopolitanism about the festival, and as it continued this feeling became more palpable. And it culminated during Ghost’s performance.

Ghost performing live at Download Japan 2019 @ Makuhari Messe, Chiba, Japan
Ghost performing live at Makuhari Messe in Chiba, Japan

In that fleeting moment, I lost my Gaijinness.

I was an American listening to a Swedish band at a Japanese festival, and none of those things mattered. All that mattered was the music. We united as a crowd in celebration of the spectacle, and nothing could stop the party.

Through music, I formed a brief communion with the other show-goers, and that can never be taken away. And it could have been any song or performance that could have done it.

Any song has the capacity to speak to you, regardless of where you come from. You just have to sit down and listen to what it has to say first.

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I didn’t intend on this, but my last three posts have all been related to music in some way or another. It’s funny how it worked out that way!

I guess the Metal festival impacted me a lot more than I initially thought. Since I got back from it, I have been thinking a lot about Metal in Japan, and I wanted to unpack those thoughts here. I hope you enjoyed my ramblings!

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Song of the Week

Memoirs of a Gaijin Playlist

“Satori Pt. II” by Flower Travellin’ Band

Read all about this week’s anthem here!

If you would like to listen to this song or any of the other prior Songs of the Week, check out the Spotify Playlist linked above!

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